In A House On A Hill18 July 2017
CONTENT WARNING: SELF HARM
We arrive at the summerhouse in three cars full of food and clothes. The house perches on old stilts on a sloping, dusty shore. The lake is dotted with isolated campsites, hidden away from each other by blue gums and shrubs. I am standing by the open boot of my car, the sun already summoning sweat on my forehead. You skip up to me and lean against the boot.
– The lake is brown.
– It’s full of soil; it’s not dirty.
– It’s literally dirty.
– I mean it’s not dangerous.
– You told me it would be blue.
– I told you whatever I needed to, to get you down here.
You flick your hair and tsk at me. I pick up a bag of clothes, your bag. You grab a set of speakers.
Inside the house smells of mildew and old floorboards. The kitchen bench is packed with bags full of vegetables and breads. We walk past it and head up to the second storey. I find the master bedroom and rest your bag on the exposed mattress of the double bed. A single-glazed window stretches across three walls of the room. Trees press in on the glass, obscuring the lake. You slide a panel open and eucalyptus glides in on the breeze. You come up behind me,
– Where are you sleeping?
– There’s a room with four singles downstairs
– Oh, right.
You drop the speakers on your bed. You look disheartened, or maybe I want you to look disheartened.
– Don’t be like that; you and Aaron have the best room.
– And don’t we know it!
Aaron is leaning on the door. His face is vibrating.
– This is going to be amazing.
I squeeze his shoulder as I leave you two alone. At the top of the stairs I look into the room. Your eyes meet mine for a heartbeat, then look away.
I’ve started getting tired at midnight when I come to this bar. I think it’s a sign we come here too often. The conversation at our table is too thick with smoke and alcohol and I decide to head to my car. The bouncers nod to me. Outside, Aaron leans against the brown brick wall, a group of men piss down the sidewalk next to him.
– What’s up?
– Hannah never got in the cab.
– No one knows where she is.
I can see his pulse is hammering in his temple. He’s about to ask something he doesn’t want to:
– Could we…
– I’ll get my car.
Aaron hardly fits in the padded passenger seat. His knee bounces, almost colliding with his head. As I drive, the car rumbles like it wants to consume the road. We scan the suburban backstreets. They’re aggressively empty. Sometimes when it’s quiet enough I swear I can hear the silence.
– Why would her friends tell me she got in the cab when no one saw it?
– I don’t know.
– Like why the fuck would they do that?
– I don’t know.
– Shit man, there’s a big ass park there man.
I look out to my left. He’s not wrong.
– Should I pull over?
Aaron sucks through his teeth. I watch him jogging through the park calling her name. I can’t hear him but I see his voice billowing out in front of him in the freezing air. No phone, no money, no communication, no show. Fucking typical Hannah.
New Year’s Day is thick with pollen and sleep. The air tastes like hot sawdust and it burns my lungs and dries my nose. You and I sit on rain-stained patio furniture. It’s hard to imagine this place ever raining. The sun has pushed us under the awnings and we drink beer while we watch the others swimming in the shallows. They are largely out of earshot, but every now and then we hear a cry, a smatter of laughter.
We have sat out here for hours and you have your legs laid across my lap. My finger idly runs circles on your pale calf. You slap my arm, incredulous,
– Get out.
– No, I’m serious.
– From the moment you saw me?
– Yes, from that moment I thought she looks like a woman worth knowing.
I know the expression you’re making despite your sunglasses: the smile that pulls your eyes back into slits.
– But I was so young.
– We all were.
I sip my beer and it falls bitter into my stomach. It chills me except for where your legs touch mine. I hope it takes the red out of my face.
– Well, you must’ve felt blessed when Aaron started seeing me, knowing I’d be around so much.
– Of course, my prayers were answered.
You push the auburn hair out of your face and laugh, biting on your tongue. A cricket picks up somewhere near us, and it’s deafening.
Aaron runs up the sloping shore, water running down his lean body. I can see him squinting through the glare; we are hidden in the shade of the deck. He calls out to us,
– You guys joining us anytime today?
I look to you for guidance. You call back,
– No, maybe another day!
Aaron shrugs and turns back to the others eager to rejoin them.
– Maybe another day.
You say again, but you are looking at me.
I look to Aaron. We have sat in silence since she finally contacted him, a hurried phone call from a pizzeria. The car is always growling. Even when we try to stop and think, its vibration goes on. It shakes and shudders and carries us deeper into streets we do not know. I say what’s been on my mind since the call,
– What happens when we find her?
– What do you mean what happens?
– You two hate me; remember? Isn’t that where we stand?
Aaron stares ahead, jaw tight. The dashboard splays red light over his face. The digital clock counts every moment come and go, mocking us. I scoff,
– I knew it.
– We don’t – she doesn’t hate you.
– That’s not what I’ve heard.
– What would you know? When was the last time you even spoke to her?
My knuckles are white on the wheel,
– I can’t. We don’t speak. That’s exactly my point.
Aaron is silent. The air of the car presses in on us shaking with the growling engine. Old leather and sun-cracked plastic fill my nose. Outside the night is predatory and cold.
– How do you think she’ll react to me picking her up?
The growling grows louder.
– Does she even know I’m with you, Aaron?
– Are you fucking serious?
– Jesus, I’m sorry that I care about finding her more than whatever’s happened between you two. Maybe it’s time you fucking make up anyway?
I bite my tongue,
– You know it’s not going to be that simple.
Aaron turned to me now, his face half garish red, half shadowed.
– Whatever, we’re almost here.
Aaron stretches out of the car and swings the door shut behind him. He jogs across the empty road over to the pizzeria haloed in fluorescent white and blue. He pushes on the glass door and Hannah runs across the tile floor to him. I watch their embrace.
The Princess and her Charming.
As we drive to her house they sit in the back. I can see them in my mirror. Aaron sits low in his seat, his head laid back against its rest. His hand rests on Hannah’s knee. Hannah sits taut and upright. Her hair, which had been a mess when we found her, is tied tight in a bun. Her sharp face is still as marble. Aaron dotes on her; his eyes shine with a hungry depth. Hannah looks out the window unfocused and motionless. I try to meet her eye. She does anything but.
We stand in the kitchen and watch the dusk settle on the lake. Purples and reds shine on the muddy water and sandy turf. We drink cheap gin and cheaper beer. We go home tomorrow. Our drunkenness deepens with the night and we forget that there is a world beyond these papery walls. It is bliss, for a time. Someone starts playing ‘90s rock and we were only young then but we love it fiercely and it fills our chests like we have balloons for hearts. We turn it up until dust falls from the eaves.
Aaron and I start cooking as night slips into morning. We dice tomatoes and garlic and fry bread to make bruschetta. The house is dark but we are loud. The oven glows hot like a hearth and in the living room an ancient lamp putters out parchment-thin light. I watch you dancing, your bangs flying about your face. You buckle over laughing and you don’t even try to hide your crooked tooth. You cry and you hug me. Your arms linger cold on my neck. By the time Aaron and I serve, you are gone.
Later, much later, we stomp through the house like heartbeats. In a heap of hot swirling heads and limbs we all collapse breathless in the master bedroom. From the floor the trees around the window are peering down at us in judgement. They scrape at the windows with thousands of green fingers. Green. Trees should be brown in summer. Squeezed between the leaves and the ceiling is a sky heavy with stars.
– There’s so many.
– I know.
– Way more than back home.
Someone heads for the door.
– Where are you going?
– To get a better look, come on.
Suddenly I am alone on the floor. I listen to the trees lapping at the glass until another sound breaks their pattern. It sounds for a second like a gasp, then quiet. The trees stop to listen. There again, an exhale that could not be contained. A long silence passes. Then, a choked rasp that leaves the lungs like sandpaper. It came from the bathroom.
I approach the door on the landing. Outside, a shout bounces across the lake chased by a crowd’s laughter. The bathroom door has a sailing boat detailed into the wood in blue and yellow. I put my hand over the boat and push. Inside I find you kneeling thigh deep in the bath. The air is thick with steam and heat and sweat. Scattered around the room is a razor, battered and bent, but its blades are still safely locked in their frame. A sink filled to the brim, dissolved makeup dyes the water like skin. In your hand, a hair dryer whose cord will not reach the bath. Your clothes are glued to your thin body and your hair is lank. Makeup bleeds down your face and your pallid eyes stare glassy. I do not know where you were looking; but it was a black, faraway place. You go to make that sound again – that sandpaper scream – but you swallow it flaming back into your lungs. You drop the hair dryer, useless, and it starts whirring on the sopping tile floor. You choke,
– Don’t tell him.
– I won’t.
– Don’t tell him.
Aaron and Hannah stand by her front door. They are waiting for her dad to let them in. I am supposed to be gone. They are wrapped in arms and breathe shadow-soft words onto each other. The car is off now. Its growls have stopped. Now the only sound it makes are tiny clicks as the metal cools. The hot leather and red light are gone. Hannah’s tiny porch light is white, almost blue. A cold light. I watch them and remember a shore, thick with pollen, and another day that never was.
The door opens and they are covered in light. When the door closes, they are gone.